Forensic entomologist M. Lee Goff’s “A Fly for the Prosecution,” about a murder in which the time of death was determined through his analysis of the insects living in and around the corpse, is as exciting as any murder mystery, making it one of the high points in this collection. And the late Cornell entomologist Thomas Eisner’s “The Love Potion,” about a blister beetle known as Spanish fly, works for the same reason: Eisner was willing to put himself at the center of the story.
He explored the question of whether a poison excreted by the beetles could cause priapism (prolonged and painful erections) in men who had eaten frogs that fed on the insects. The question had been around since 1869, when French soldiers stationed in Algeria experienced a number of alarming symptoms, including priapism, after eating frogs’ legs. Eisner fed blister beetles to frogs and analyzed the uptake of poison. Sure enough, the poison lingered in the frogs’ tissue for a few days without seeming to harm them, making them the likely cause of the French soldiers’ predicament. (Wondering if the poison was immediately distasteful, Eisner considered sampling it but thought better of the idea.)